Can we do Better than Dropdowns? Is there even a Problem?

Site navigation is a major aspect of both design and usability. For websites, navigation is a major aspect of interactivity that should be easy to distinguish and use. More often than not, a navigation element can be quite simple, acting as a bridge to the various major sections of a website. On the other hand, there is a point at which a website reaches a size where an all-inclusive simple site navigation plainly isn’t feasible.

It is usually at that point when some sort of navigation structure is implemented, often consisting of a dropdown architecture. These dropdown navigations mirror functionality of desktop application menu design. There are categorized entries grouped together under an umbrella category with the intention of hierarchical organization. Sometimes there are implementations consisting of three or more levels of dropdowns, as is the case of many desktop applications.

The question to ask is: are dropdown navigations the best we can do?

Taking a step back and examining a dropdown navigation in its simplest form gives some insight. At first glance, a dropdown navigation provides a (usually short) list of sections to choose from. Naturally, one of the sections piques your interest and you go for it. To your surprise, upon hovering your intended subject, an entire new set of choices appears out of thin air. You’re forced to reexamine your initial choice and make another decision before [hopefully] finding the information for which you’re looking.

While this analysis might be a bit over the top, many people view dropdown navigations as having this sort of problem when it comes to their natural usability. I can agree to an extent in that a reader has already made their decision on the item they’d like to explore, and giving an entirely new set of options at that point doesn’t make complete sense. On the other hand, computer users in general have really become accustomed to this process. We find ourselves interacting with this sort of menu architecture constantly when using a computer. A well designed dropdown navigation would provide contextual choices for a reader to make a more detailed choice.

While my opinion on the general usability of dropdown navigations isn’t completely black & white, one usability issue I can be completely positive about is graceful degradation.

The worst of the worst

We can all remember the old DHTML days where JavaScript-based navigations were implemented left and right. These navigation systems used JavaScript to provide dropdown-like functionality in a variety of (often disgusting) ways. The obvious issue here is the use of these documents with an application lacking JavaScript support. Site navigation, the most important interactive feature of a website, would no longer function. To this day there remain a number of websites relying on JavaScript-based dropdown navigations in their obtrusive, inaccessible glory.

Miniature case study: Dell

One such example that has been consistently bothering me is the site navigation for Dell. Dell has been implementing poor JavaScript-based site navigations for as long as I can remember. As you can see, with a browser that supports JavaScript, the site navigation appears as you might expect:

Screenshot of www.dell.com using a browser which supports JavaScript

Viewing the Dell website as a whole using a browser without JavaScript support is a different story entirely. Focusing on the site navigation:

Screenshot of www.dell.com using a browser which does not support JavaScript

As a last resort, Dell does provide a severely limited navigation in comparison to their JavaScript version:

Screenshot of the main site navigation of www.dell.com using a browser without JavaScript

Opinions?

How do you feel about the implementation of dropdown-style website navigation? Do you think there are truly some underlying usability concerns that should be taken into consideration? Does a dropdown navigation add a level of convenience that would otherwise be unavailable? There have been other pieces written on this exact subject, but dropdown navigations are continually implemented. What do you think?

Further reading: